Tynedale: Why are parish councils struggling to fill vacancies?
Published at 07:34, Wednesday, 04 September 2013
FROM play parks to public toilets, from grass cutting to dog fouling, parish and town councillors are tasked with dealing with it all.
But, more than three months on from the local elections on May 2, many councils in the Tyne Valley are operating with a significant shortfall in numbers.
In Bellingham, the parish council has nine seats and yet there are only five councillors, while across in Riding Mill, Broomhaugh and Riding Parish Council is in the same boat.
In Acomb, only three candidates put their names forward for the parish council’s seven seats back in May.
And in Stocksfield, Broomley and Stocksfield Parish Council is facing a 50 per cent shortfall after filling just six of its 12 seats to date.
In fact, only a handful of communities had sufficient interest to warrant holding an election, such as Allendale where 16 members of the community stood to fill 13 seats.
So why the shortage of willing councillors? And what can be done to tackle the issue?
Secretary of the Northumberland Association of Local Councils (NALC), David Francis, said: “An increase in the number of vacancies on parish councils is something that we had anticipated in the months leading up to the May elections.
“But it’s not because of any disaffection or disillusionment.
“First of all it was because there were a lot of long-serving councillors who we knew were planning to stand down because, rightly so, they felt they’d played their part.
“Secondly, the previous elections were in 2007 and due to the changes with the local government structure in Northumberland, there was an artificially long term of office for people.”
Pre-empting a shortfall, NALC worked closely with Northumberland County Council’s democratic services department to publish publicity materials and hold a number of events across the county aimed at encouraging new people to come forward.
“I remember looking at the candidate lists and finding that a number of councils which had been so active and vibrant in the past were facing a shortfall this time around,” said David.
“Although you know that after every election there will always be one or two stragglers who decide it is for them and are co-opted on to parish and town councils.”
However, despite a slow start, David is confident that councils will get the resources they need to get back up to full strength in the months ahead.
“We organise training events for new parish councillors and are due to hold the next ones in September,” he said.
“And actually, we’ve been overwhelmed by the numbers of people signing up for them.
“Yes there are more responsibilities placed on these people these days, mainly due to the Government nailing down and cutting back on what local authorities can do and the budgets they have.
“Responsibilities like maintaining play parks, public toilets and other community facilities have been handed down in some places.
“But actually, some parishes see that as an exciting challenge, rather than a burden.
“The parish and town council tier stills enjoys a great deal of freedom, because they are not subjected to all the bureaucratic red tape that the local authorities are.
“So there is tonnes of scope to make changes for the better.”
Reflecting on the current shortfall in her parish, chairman of Broomley and Stocksfield Parish Council, Coun. Maggi Hunt, said: “I think the thing these days is that people are incredibly busy.
“Most people are living lives where they are juggling a number of things at work and at home. So it’s not always possible for people to find the time.
“Then there will be people who feel when they look around them that things are being run reasonably well at a local level and, as long as the basic things are being done, like the grass is cut and there isn’t a problem with litter, they will think nobody needs them.
“For those that do have the time, there is often a reluctance to get involved, as people think ‘what can I offer?’”
But Coun. Hunt is keen to point out that everyone has something to bring to the table.
“The fact is that anybody with a bit of life experience will have skills and knowledge which can help within a parish council,” she explained.
“There’s nothing complicated about it and I would encourage people not to be put off and to find out a bit more about how their local council works.
“I’m one of those people that generally likes to volunteer and get involved in things, but didn’t have the time until I retired.
“What I would say is being able to do something which makes a difference in the place you live is really satisfying. It’s a very rewarding role.”
Meanwhile, in communities across Tynedale, there are stalwarts who have served as parish councillors for decades and have no plans to give up yet – such as Dennis Bowman from Fourstones.
The well-known local businessman, who is now 71, is in his 41st year of office on Warden Parish Council, which currently has no vacancies.
A former chairman, he has had a hand in many major developments in the parish over the years.
“I joined the parish council because I have an interest in the parish and what goes on,” he said.
“As a business owner, I have also always been interested in development and creating job opportunities for people.
“So it seemed like something that I would be well suited to.”
But over the years, Dennis admits the role has changed, while remaining an important one.
“Yes, there does seem to be more involved now; a lot more responsibility for people who are, of course, volunteers.
“But that shouldn’t put people off.
“One of the biggest things the parish council has helped to do in my time is getting the sewage works installed in the parish 30 or 40 years ago.
“That was huge for us and paved the way for extra housing and a lot of other benefits.
“More recently we’ve done everything from creating picnic areas to installing new bus shelters and seating.
“We’re proud of what we achieve and I’ll continue to do it for as long as I can.
“I would encourage people to step up and get involved.”
Published by http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk
This week in... 1930Saturday, December 13, 1930...
HAVING raised over £1,000 through prize draws, dances, whist drives and donations, Bellingham was able to buy its town hall.
So successful was the fund-raising that when all the debts were cleared more than £100 was left in the fund.
The hall could now be used by the town for all manner of social and public functions.